Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff
Rating: 4 out of 5 creepy old mirrors for this mind-bending horror masterpiece. With its slow build and intellectual approach to scares, it is certainly a smarter and more subtle supernatural tale that, through its careful and successful editing especially, seeks to play with its audience’s sense of perception rather than providing gore.
Oculus, at first, seems like it will be a fairly conventional horror movie in which a mirror haunts a home or possesses its owners. We open with siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell when they’re children and in the midst of their trauma, but already here we find we cannot always trust what we’re seeing on screen, which is this movie’s overall strength and main source of terror. Tim is dreaming this particular moment; having been locked up for 10 years and receiving psychiatric treatment there due to the fact that this trauma actually culminated in him shooting his own father. Now that he is released though, Kaylie has devised an all too elaborate plan to find and destroy the antique evil mirror. By involving Tim in this plan, she threatens all the mental and emotional healing it seems like Tim has finally achieved (and I say “seems” because even issues of mental illness and questions of mental stability are prodded and played with by this film, and I’m sure a case can be made that there’s a deeper reading of that possible here).
As mentioned already, the most successful and satisfying formal aspect of the film was definitely its editing. The film ebbs and flows seamlessly and therefore chillingly between past and present narratives until, gradually, the two sets of events have bled so much into each other that our understanding of time and perception of what is real become just as muddled as the characters’ own memories, understandings and perceptions. This artfully and ambitiously exceeds non-linearity: this film is a meticulously constructed puzzle whose pieces themselves do not fit together so much as overlap, eventually forming a whole that is satisfyingly deceptive, appropriately complicated and ultimately unclear without ever actually being confusing.
So, maybe a better albeit still cliched analogy for this film would be comparing it to a tapestry, for the way its timelines not only flow separately side-by-side but how the threads of both are then steadily and deliberately woven together, leaving behind no knots or frays but also no discernible pattern either. That is to say, the film is terrifying precisely because of the way it twists and turns without allowing for any temporary resolutions or predictability; it is impossible to tell what is truly happening, and to whom and in what time, which is unsettling to say the least and logically sets up for moments of shock and dread. It is still hard to articulate though why this never becomes confusing so much as it becomes truly and increasingly scary; I can only attribute this fact to the film’s careful pacing and editing again and Flanagan’s direction overall. The film, even at its most twisted, never feels excessive or silly. It doesn’t rely on typical tropes or tricks at all, really, and even the way the supernatural aspects of the mirror manifest themselves lie refreshingly outside many generic norms. The storytelling itself is always simple and easy even when the actual narrative is significantly less so. Again, I’m not sure how Flanagan has pulled off something that feels both classic and unique, both subtle and complex, and both horrifying and truly thought-provoking; but the fact that he has makes this film not only a feat of the horror genre specifically (by moving it forward and elevating it upward), but also of filmmaking itself at its most skillful and effective.